So what should be done? The vision of Gretchen Morgenson tying herself up in ethical knots before deciding what she can and can’t do is not a particularly edifying one: there’s got to be a better way than this.
On occasion she gives paid speeches to universities, as Times policy permits, and sometimes she appears, for free, at financial-industry events—but not without doing due diligence. “I did recently participate in a one-hour question-and-answer session about the state of the economy and markets with about 50 clients of First Long Island Investors, a small, local registered investment advisory firm,” she said in an e-mail. “It does business only in New York and Florida, has 200 or so accounts, and does not conduct securities underwriting or trading for its own account. As such, it would not be a firm I would cover. I received no honorarium for my participation in this session and before I agreed to participate, I checked that the firm had not been subject to any regulatory or disciplinary actions.”
My feeling is that for full-time employees of media organizations, a single, named ethics chief should make final determinations in all cases where a journalist wants to give a paid speech. It’s silly to ask the journalists themselves to make such determinations unilaterally, since they’re the ones being paid. The rules could be written or unwritten, but at least there would be someone being clear about what is allowed and what isn’t. Alternatively a blanket ban, like the WSJ has, works just as well.
For freelancers, however, things become a lot more difficult. The NYT, for one, tries to hold its freelancers to the same standards as its full-time journalists, but that’s hard, especially when the NYT isn’t paying them nearly as much. At the very least, we need more disclosure. This is very telling:
With the notable exceptions of Gillian Tett, Michael Lewis, and Martin Wolf, most of the journalists I tried to talk to about their speaking appearances resisted comment, or would only talk anonymously—which is a little ironic. One prominent scribe pleaded not to be mentioned at all. (Sorry, no passes.) I still have the bite marks on my neck from a telephone conversation with another who demanded to know whether he was the target of a “hostile inquiry.”
If you’re not proud to be giving a paid speech, and happy to be open about that fact, then it seems to me you shouldn’t be doing it. And that applies whether you’re self-employed or not.